Monday, September 21, 2009

The Moral Chasm

I sometimes write as if Christian theism (CT) is a variety of explanatory hypothesis and that it derives the greater part of its plausibility from this. Indeed I have compared it to theory within the sciences and have argued that it is very much like them. (A favorite example of mine is quantum mechanics.)

I would still insist upon this point. CT does do much explanatory work, both of entities physical and metaphysical; and its plausibility is bolstered by this. But let it not be thought that for me CT does only this. It does more, and more importantly it does something before. The genesis of my belief in CT does not lie in estimation of explanatory power. Rather the genesis is moral and practical in nature. Let me explain.

I feel that a moral chasm lies between the man I am at present and the man I ought to and can become. I am, in my own eyes, radically defective. I see it in what I think and do, and in what I do not think and do not do. I am quick to anger. I am lazy. I am selfish. I am fearful. (There's more . . . and worse.)

I know that I could do better. I know that there is another and better way. But my 41 years have taught me that I cannot do as I would do. (The spirit does not even always will it; and the flesh is always week.) I find it necessary, then, to look to a power outside myself, a power that would do for me what I cannot do for myself. I find it necessary to look to God.

This is not an argument. It is rather a history, and a current fact. I find it absolutely inescapable that I am a wretched sinner. (This is not flourish. It is plain truth.) The sense of this I carry with me always. It colors all that I think and do. I can no more shed it than I can shed my skin.

Nor do I wish to shed it. I do not wish to become on who believes that my faults are not really faults. Quite the contrary - I wish to become one whose defects have been overcome; and I look habitually and continually to God as the sole power able to grant this wish.

I thus am a Christian theist not by argument but by the sheer weight of the awareness of my sins. When I turn to argument, I do so not to lay out those arguments that brought me to Christianity. Rather I do so to show my interlocutors the intellectual power of CT (a power that they reject). But even if I myself were to come to doubt that power, a Christian I would remain. Knowledge of my sins (and inescapable propensity to sin) and of my inability to heal myself makes this inevitable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Simple "No"

I. There are many things to which I utter a simple "No". I say "No" to murder, and to rape. I say "No" to cowardice and to ignorance.

The relativist cannot in consistency utter a simple "No".

He can say "No for me". He can say "No for us" (though no doubt in the "us" to which the relativist refers, we will find some who say "Yes").

He can say "No for now". But he cannot say "No, not ever, not for anyone".

There is in the mouth of the relativist always a "Perhaps". Even if "No" today, then perhaps "Yes" tomorrow. Even if "No" from me or "No" from us, then perhaps "Yes" for others.

There is no "No" simpliciter for the Relativist.

II. What is that which allows for a "No" with no addendum? What allows for the "No" simpliciter? It cannot be humanity, for that is variable; on that, one cannot plant a stake.

If this world - the human world- is the only world, all "No"s can become "Yes"s. The relativists knows this, of course. Relativism is inconsistent with unshakable conviction. It is a house built on sand. It is a code that is not code, for it is the code which says that all codes can pass away. Relativism is thus moral cowardice. It has made certain that there is always a way of retreat; and it has told us that we can expect retreat at any time.

III. "But, but . . .", I hear the relativist interject. "What kind of irrational dogmatism is this that believes that it and it alone has discovered the truth and will not admit the possibility of change?" My dear friend, in your thirst for justice (and is not relativism a kind of perversion of justice in which not only all men but all opinions are held equal?), you have made a simple logical error. Distinguish, I ask you, between the possibility of error and the possibility that what one holds is false. I will grant you that the possibility of error is inescapable. We are human, all too human; and it is sheer hubris to say that one cannot be mistaken. But that I am possibly in error does not imply that all that I believe is possibly false. Possibility of error is epistemic; possibility of falsity, metaphysical. It seems to me quite clear that certain propositions are true and cannot be false. "Murder is impermissible" is true and must be true. Perhaps I'm wrong about this. Perhaps I've made some mistake. But that is a fact about me and my imperfection. The modal status of the propositions "Murder is impermissible" is quite another matter. It seems to me a necessary proposition, and I will call it thus until such time as anyone casts doubt upon it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Origin of Evil: A Dialogue, Pt. 1

Two friends speak of the origin of evil. Each is Christian, but neither understands how evil came to be. Indeed to begin, it seems to them that, since humanity is a creation of God, the Fall was an impossibility. Together they seek for a solution to this riddle - a riddle central to human existence. N, we will see in a later post, provides the key insight.

F: God is perfect, of course.
N: On this we both agree.
F: But how then can we attribute imperfection to his creation?
N: Indeed how can we? It would seem impossible.
F: Though it seems impossible, we must. For quite plainly the world is imperfect; there is evil within it. But God cannot have willed this evil for its own sake, for God is perfectly good. Thus he either willed it for the sake of a greater good for which it is necessary means; or he allowed it to arise, though he did not will it.
N: These seem the only two possibilities.
F: Let us consider the first possibility - that God willed evil solely as a means to a greater good that could not have been achieved if that evil had not existed. Can we truly suppose that God did such a thing?
N: What is your worry, friend?
F: It is this: to will something evil, even if that evil is a necessary means to a greater good, is yet to will something evil. But how can a perfectly good being will something evil? To make evil one's goal seems to imply that one is imperfect.
N: So it would seem.
F: Moreover, can we attribute to God the state of affairs wherein some evil is a necessary means to some greater good? A world in which there is such a state of affairs seems less than a perfectly good world, for in a perfectly good world, every good that is an effect is an effect of something that is itself good.
N: I do see your point. The state of affairs in which some good is such that it cannot be realized if there is not a prior evil to bring it about seems to infect the world which contains it with imperfection.
F: You will agree, then, that a certain conclusion is inescapable. God cannot have willed a state of affairs in which evil is necessary to bring about good. But if he cannot have willed it and yet such states of affairs do obtain (as indeed they do - some goods can be brought only out of evil), we cannot attribute them to God.
N: I do agree to this conclusion.
F: How then do we account for such a state of affairs if it is not from God?
N: It seems we must return to a point often made by theologians: it is not God but we who are responsible. God but allows it to happen.
F: That's it exactly. Here's where we are, then: God does not will evil. Thus we must embrace the only other possible explanation of its existence. It comes from creature, not Creator.
N: When we say this, we say only what all before have said before. It does appear to be inescapable Christian doctrine. But we haven't put the issue to rest yet. For a new riddle arises when we consider why creature might have turned from God and sinned.
F: I believe that I can guess at what you mean, but instruct me.
N: Consider humanity in its original state, its state before the Fall.
F: It must have been just as God wished it to be. It must have been perfect.
N: Yes, this is so. God in his perfection makes all things just as he intends; and since he intends their perfection, he must have made them perfect. But now the question that I wish to ask must arise: How can humanity, if first made in a state of perfection, ever have sinned. Would not that first sin have implied imperfection in the author of humanity? Do we not say that a defect in the product implies a defect in the producer?
F: So it might seem. But before we spoke of theological tradition. Can't we make use of it here? Tradition tells us that we are free creatures, and that this is part of (indeed the chief part of) our perfection. But since free, we were free to turn from God and seek to make our way on our own. This we did and thus did sin make its entrance into the world.
N: As you know, I am well aware of this move. Indeed I have often made it myself in the past. But I've grown dissatisfied with it. It seems to leave a crucial question unanswered.
F: What is your worry?
N: My worry is this: that we are free to do a thing does not mean that we will do it. Moreover, when we do a thing, even when we do it freely, we are never without motive for what we do. Free action is not arbitrary action. It is not random. It comes with a reason, though that reason does not necessitate it. As Leibniz says, reason inclines only.
F: I begin to share your worry. Will you let me spell it out.
N: Please.
F: The first sin - whatever precisely it was - was freely done. But though it was free, it had a reason. There was something that the sinner hoped to achieve by it. But this very hope is itself a sign of imperfection. That hope - whatever it might have been - was a hope that, if acted upon, would carry us away from God. Thus its very existence in the soul must have been an imperfection in the soul, as would anything that would tend to separate us from God.
N: Yes. It seems that God made us to want that which we should not want; and though he did not make us act upon that desire, the mere fact that it was in us implies that we came into the world imperfect.
F: Simply put, if humanity were created perfect, it could never have motive to sin; and if it never had motive to sin, it would never had sinned. But sin we did. Thus . . .

The friends sit in silence. The afternoon passes. Each is afraid to speak, for to continue on this path is to fall into heresy and perhaps even atheism.

But F summons the courage to speak again, and courage he did need. For he will not attempt a solution of the problem. Rather he will attempt to sharpen it. He has realized that the problem is even deeper than first suspected.

- Pt. 2 to follow -


I wish to speak of the students I know. What I say will not apply to all students everywhere, but it will apply to most in the West. (No doubt it will apply to many elsewhere as well. But I know only the West. Let those who know better speak of other places.) In the West, most children find themselves in a classroom by their 5th year (if not before); most remain in the classroom until at least their 16th. Their teachers do vary in quality. But all (or almost all) have teachers, and all are taught; and if they would but work, they would learn.

The question I wish to address is this: What is that which make students succeed? My answer (I hope) will come as a surprise. The obvious answer - that mastery of content brings success - is at best a shallow truth. What is the truth that underlies? Why do some master what is taught while others do not?

I do not doubt that knowledge is essential to success. If I know nothing, I cannot succeed at anything. But if we would make our students successful, we cannot aim first, or primarily, at an increase in knowledge. For if a student is not ready to learn, nothing we can convey to that student, nothing that we attempt to teach, will be learned. Rather it will pass over the student and leave no sign that it ever touched her.

But how then is a student made ready to learn? What distinguishes those students in my classes who are ready from those who are not? I have embraced an answer that, I suspect, puts me at odds with much of the education establishment. They would say that, when a student appears unready to learn, the reason is ignorance of that which should have been learned before. The view is thus that present failure is bred by past failure and thus that, to remedy that failure, all we need do is teach what had not been learned before. I reject this view. Readiness to learn is first and primarily a matter of character, not of knowledge. Proper character leads to acquisition of knowledge; improper character makes that acquisition impossible.

What is proper character here? What habits of thought and of behavior must the successful student evince? No doubt a good answer must be a long answer; no doubt a good answer must name many traits. But here are the ones that at present seem to me most important:

1. Discipline of mind and of body. A mind prone to constant distraction or a body that cannot obey the dictates of mind makes failure inevitable.

2. Trust in authority. If one believes that the teacher does not know her field or that she cares nothing for the student's welfare, she will be ignored. But when a teacher is ignored, her lessons cannot be learned.

3. Desire to succeed. There will be no success where there is no desire for success. Success must be valued in its own right; it must be sought for its own sake.

4. Desire to know. The desire to know is not present to the same degree in all students who succeed; nor is it present to the same degree at all times in a student's life. (I would suggest that in most cases it increases; and it should.) But it is still there; and among the duties of teacher and of parent is to instill it.

5. Tenacity. The successful student does not give up when the tasks set before her are difficult. Rather she digs in and does what it necessary to succeed.

The best sort of pedagogy inculcates these traits first, and never neglects them when any other lesson is taught. Thus the lessons that are most important are moral in nature, and those lessons must begin early. If a students possesses these traits, then she will learn. If she possesses these traits, she will come to class ready to learn; and as she works her way through the grades, she will learn what she is expected to learn.

I assume (as I said) that in most classrooms in the West, teachers do teach; and of course they do. Not all teach equally well. Not all teach equally well at all times in their careers. (Most get better. A few get worse.) But they do teach, and if the student will but listen and work, she will learn. The teacher is thus not a barrier to success. The student is the barrier when a barrier exists. Teachers are not to blame. The bad habits of their students are to blame; and if, as seems likely, we do not blame those bad habits on the students themselves, we must blame those whose primary responsibility it was to instill those habits. On parents, then, the primary blame must be placed. (Do we dig deeper at this point and blame the culture of which the parents are part? Are there cultures of failure? I would say that this is so. But still we must look to the individual for a remedy. "Culture" is but a name for a shared attitude thus way of life; culture thus entails a plurality of like-minded individuals, and from those individuals and those individuals alone can change come.)

In sum: the ultimate explanation of failure is not ignorance, for ignorance itself is something to be explained. From whence does ignorance come? Bad habit. Good habit leads to success, bad habit to failure. To teach our children well, then, is to teach them the habits of successful students.

Parents, do not take this as an invitation to ignore acquisition of knowledge. Rather I ask that you think clearly about what it means to teach well. Make them do, I say. Make them act as good students act, for as Aristotle noted we learn good habits by activity of a sort evinced by those who already possess those good habits. Do it by praise; do it by censure. Do it however it can be done, but make sure to do it.

Last I'd like to end with a little corollary. But before, let me note an obvious fact. Students forget most of what they are taught. But though this is inevitable, success is still quite real and is quite important. But what is success, then, if it is not possession of knowledge? What is the real import of my work if most of my students will forget most of what I teach?

Here is my answer. Success consists in going on, and I am a gatekeeper to advance. The successful students shows herself in possession of those traits that make success possible, and when I judge a student a success - when I, for instance, give her an A - I testify to her possession of those traits. Her possession of those traits is what's most important; and my primary task is to determine which of those students have those traits and then create the paper-trail that will allow others - either teachers or employers - to know that they have them.

I sift, but I do not sift for knowledge (at least not in the first place). I sift for virtue.

Whence Evil

The two central mysteries of existence: how did evil came to be and how evil will be put to rest.

I understand neither. Thus I do not understand my place in the world. I do not understand why I am as I am, and I do not understand how I will be made whole.


41 and sick.

41 and by myself.

41 with heart of stone.

41 with head hung low.

41 and half-way home.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Up or down?

We either climb the mountain or we descend. None stand still.

Do not judge us by where we stand. Judge us by our direction. I would rather be low but on the rise than high and ready to fall.

Do not shrink from change because you stand at the foot of the mountain. No one expects you to stand on the summit tonight. If you can take but one step up, you do now what is right.

What are we to do tomorrow?

I'm at work on a long post on pedagogy. I teach, and a series of posts on the conclusions to which I've come about that is past due.

But until them, let me say a little about the moral life.

The moral relativist tells us that moral obligation is relative. When I ask, "Relative to what?", not all give the same answer. To some, it is relative to individual choice; to others, to societal norm. But for me now, the answer does not matter. For I wish to ask all relativists how they know what they are to do tomorrow.

I understand well enough when they tell me that present moral obligation is relative to this or that. But we seem able to choose, and to change, our moral views. This I think is a fact of experience, an obvious fact. But if moral obligation is relative and variable, that today it is this (whatever this is) does not imply that tomorrow it ought to be, or will be, the same. Relativist, explain to me why you should not change your moral views overnight. Explain to me why it is necessary to hang on to them for even a second more.

You cannot say that they should not change because they conform to an external, objective standard. You cannot say that they should not change because human nature remains fixed, for a moral scheme that ties moral obligation to human nature runs counter to the fundamental thesis of the relativity of moral obligation. But if you cannot say either, it seems that you can say nothing. You can provide no reason not to abandon your moral views tonight.

The relativity of moral obligation is, I would say, a synchronic fact. It concerns only what occurs at present. At present, moral obligation is merely a reflection of the view the individual or society happens to hold. But that this is so at present gives not even a tiny hint of a reason why it should remain thus. Change or remain the same - that can make no difference to the relativist.

Thus if we cling to our moral views - as we ought and in fact do- we reveal that we are not relativists. If we know what we are to do tomorrow - and we do - we are not relativists.